Not again! The words sounded so familiar as I talked on the phone with my closest spiritual friend. Deja Vu disappointment set in as I heard another tale of a friend who was the leader of a prominent youth ministry in a large city succumbing to temptation. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
It comes into our lives often unbidden and certainly unwelcome. Temptation is a fact of life. At one stage of my spiritual journey I mistakenly thought that I would soon arrive at a place where temptation would no longer exert much influence over me. How wrong I was. Temptation persists because last time I checked my spiritual foes of the world, the flesh and the Tempter are still attempting to trip me up and divert my focus from the love and care of Jesus Christ.
But why? Why does God allow this force to exert its influence in our lives – especially when we so often stumble and bring discredit to the Lord we are attempting to serve? The Lord could instantly remove from all believers upon conversion the desire to sin. Yet, he allows these pesky and perturbing temptations to continue as long as we walk on this globe . In two words my answer to the why of temptation is: “ humble trust”. The Lord allows these temptations in our lives to produce an increasing awareness of our need to trust him and rely on his strength because on our own we don’t have what it takes to untangle ourselves from these snares to our spiritual life. One of the greatest enemies of a dynamic relationship with Jesus is self-sufficiency. If I do not sense a need for Christ then my desire and love for Christ will wane. You don’t have to look long at the history of Israel before you see this pattern emerge. In times of trouble they cried out to the Lord and acknowledged him. Yet in times of ease and prosperity, they almost invariably turned from the Lord. (Deut. 7:10-12) Paul was also aware of the tendency to become proud when we are not being buffeted by the trials and temptations of life. His “thorn in the flesh” was a constant reminder of his own limitations and his need to humbly depend on the grace and power of the Lord. (II Cor. 12:7-10). James also points out the benefits of temptation – a mature, enduring refined faith (James 1:2-4). So temptation has a purpose and is actually beneficial in our spiritual life if we respond properly.
But How? How do we experience the “benefits” of temptation without being overcome by the traps and the allure of sin. I don’t have a cookie cutter approach but I want to suggest several principles that have been helpful to me as I have .
First, recognize that temptation is not sin. Being tempted -even severely tempted – is not sin. Although, God is not the author of temptation (James 1:13) he allows it in our lives to increase our dependence on him. To be human is to be tempted. While the things that tempt us to sin will vary from person to person, the experience of temptation is common to us all. Even Jesus, without the genetic predisposition to sin that we have, was still tempted. The Evil One tempted him in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11) . In Gethsemane Jesus was intensely tempted to pursue his own will and not go through with the Father’s plan of Jesus becoming the sacrificial sin bearer for all humanity on the cross. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”. He was pulled toward temptation but he always held his ground. So when you are tempted remember that you are in good company and to be lured to disobey is not disobedience. That leads me to the second truth we need to remember.
No believer has to give in to temptation. But Brett, you don’t know how intensely I am tempted to _______(you fill in the blank). You are right! I don’t know the exact intensity of your struggles. But I do know that mine can be severe at times as well. Yet, that doesn’t give me a rationalization for yielding. In our culture of victimization and finger pointing, most of us have grown adept at blaming others for our falls and failures. It was our parent’s fault, our teacher’s fault, our hormone’s fault, our society’s fault, our genes’ fault. “I just can’t help myself. After all, I am only human!” That statement is true for the non-believer but for the believer it is a lie from the pit. We are not alone in our struggle with sin. The Holy Spirit indwells our bodies and if we take advantage of his resources we don’t have to give in to temptation. II Peter 2:9 tells us that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation. I Cor 10:13 tells us that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can handle and that he will provide a way of escape in every tempting situation we find ourselves thrust into. So, if we are going to experience victory over temptation we have to acknowledge that when we sin it is our choice. No one forced us to behave in the way we did. The way of escape was there and we chose not to avail oursleves of it. Maybe the still small voice that said “Stop now”, the phone call from a friend or the opportunity to exit gracefully. When we realize our responsibility it can be discouraging but viewed from another perspective it is actually great news because it lets us know that it is possible to choose not to yield to temptation.
I believe that choice must begin with prayer. Jesus tells us to pray that we not be led into temptation (Matt. 6:13). How do we reconcile this prayer with James 1:13 where it is clear that God does not directly tempt us and with James 1:2 where temptation is viewed as good for us. The most likely answer is that in the Lord’s Prayer we are praying to be protected from the temptations that the Evil One throws our way – which would overcome us. An implication of this prayer is that, on our own, the lure of the Evil One’s temptations are too powerful for us. We need to rely on God’s help if we are going to overcome these powerful temptations. Victory begins with humility and a recognition that we don’t have what it takes on our own (cf. 1 Cor. 10:12).
Our choice not to yield also involves some sacrifices on our part. I Timothy 4:7 tells us to “discipline” ourselves for the purpose of godliness. The word for discipline is the root of our English word “gymnasium”. It brings to mind images of sweaty exertion toward a goal followed by tired and aching muscles. This is the part we don’t like to hear. We want instant victory over temptation without the hard labor – some anti-temptation pill that we can take to avoid the hard work. But consistent discipline develops our spiritual muscles so that we can overcome temptation. The main soul strengthening discipline in my life is digging into God’s Word. In John 17:17, the Lord lets us know that it is the truth found in the Word that sets us apart and makes us holy. The Psalmist says, “Your word I have hid in my heart so that I might not sin against you.” For me this means getting up so that I can spend time in the Word and journaling before I start my day. For you it may mean reading and meditating at night. But one thing I have learned from observing my own life and others, when I ignore time in the Word with the Lord it is not a matter of if but simply when I will fall.
One of Satan’s key strategies in attempting to trip us up is to cause us to doubt God’s Word and his extraordinary love and concern for us. This strategy is as old as the Garden (Gen. 3:1-5) but it is still one of his most popular tactics. Temptations always promise more than they deliver. The lie of Satan is that I will be happier more fulfilled and more satisfied if I yield. The truth is that my future will be immensely more satsifying if I follow the Lord. God has not given us his commands to burden us but to provide us with abundant life (I Jn. 5:3). Temptation provides a temporary rush but is followed by a devastating crush.
Another aspect of our chosing not to sin is to look at the patterns of sin in our life and be ruthless with those activities, people, times, and places that make us vulnerable to sin. Jesus uses hyperbole to express this truth in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells us to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands if they cause us to stumble (Matt. 6:29&30). Our Lord wasn’t advocating self-mutilation but he was emphasizing the seriousness of dealing with things in our lives that trip us up. Ask yourself some questions: When are you most likely to experience temptations? Where? What triggers it? When do you cross the line from being in control to being controlled by the temptation? Once you have answers to these questions avoid like the plague those thing that trip you up.
Finally, enlist the help of others. James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins one to another and we will experience healing. Gal 6:1 tells us that sometimes we are duped and trapped by our failures and we need the help of others who are walking in the Spirit to free us from the trap of sin. Hebrews 10:24&25 tells us that we need one anothers’ encouragement to flourish in the Christian life. This is why we advocate small groups and accountability friendships here at Grace. In our battle with the temptations we face we need the help of other believers if we are going to be victorious. If you are attempting to be a Christian Lone Ranger in your battle with temptation you need seek out someone who can support you in prayer and encourage you to maintain the integrity of your walk with the Lord even when you don’t feel like it.
These have been a few of the truths that I have found helpful in my ever present battle with temptation. I have not arrived at the place where I no longer fall but, by God’s grace, my falls are not as frequent or as damaging as they once were. Thoughout this process never forget the unconditional love and grace of God. Who welcomes us back even when we have misused the inheritance of grace he gave us. The Evil One wants us to stay away from the Father when we fail but as the story of the Prodigal Son makes it clear that the Father is waiting and longing to welcome us back when we come to our senses. Keep pressing on and remember the truth- with God’s help you can resist those ever present temptations.